WHY IS THERE AN ORANGE ON THE SEDER PLATE?
The real story behind the orange on the seder plate
By Anita Silvert
I love setting the Passover table. Each item on the table has such meaning, and I’m not just talking about the matzoh and the shankbone. I’m talking about the pot that I’m pouring the chicken soup from-it’s from my grandmother’s Passover dishes. The tablecloth was given to me by my mother-in-law. The Seder plates were wedding presents. I make my mother’s matzoh balls (fluffy and light, of course!) You know what I mean.
I like the colors on the table, too. There’s the green of the parsley, and the red of the Manischewitz horseradish (don’t judge me-I don’t like the stuff anyway, and I only use enough to make the blessing. But it looks nice on the plate). And then there’s the orange. It’s right on the seder plate, where it’s been for almost 20 years.
Have you heard about putting an orange on the Seder Plate? Even if you have, I’m sure it’s not the true story of how it came to be, so to do my part to put rumors to rest, I present you here with the real story of why people put an orange on the Seder plate.
It started with Dr. Susannah Heschel. The story you may have heard goes something like this: After a lecture given in Miami Beach, a man (usually Orthodox) stood up and angrily denounced feminism, saying that a woman belongs on a bima (pulpit) the way an orange belongs on a Seder plate. To support women’s rightful place in Jewish life, people put an orange on their Passover tables.
It’s a powerful story. And it’s absolutely false. It never happened.
Heshchel herself tells the story of the genesis of this new ritual in the 2003 book, The Women’s Passover Companion (JPL). It all started with a story from Oberlin College in the early 1980’s. Heschel was speaking at the Hillel, and while there, she came across a haggadah written by some Oberlin students to bring a feminist voice into the holiday. In it, a story is told about a young girl who asks a Rebbe what room there is in Judaism for a lesbian. The Rebbe rises in anger and shouts, “There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate.”
Though Heschel was inspired by the idea behind the story, she couldn’t follow it literally. Besides the fact that it would make everything-the dish, the table, the meal, the house-unkosher for Passover, it carried a message that lesbians were a violation of Judaism itself, that these women were infecting the community with something impure.
So, the next year, Heschel put an orange on the family seder plate, “I chose an orange because it suggests the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life.”
The symbolism grew to include people who feel marginalized from the Jewish community: the widow, the orphan, women’s issues in general, but solidarity with the gay and lesbian Jewish community was at the core. It wasn’t a navel orange; it had to have seeds to symbolize rebirth, renewal. And spitting out the seeds reminds us to spit out the hatred and ostracization of homosexuals in our community, and others who feel prejudice’s sting. The orange is segmented, not fragmented. Our community has discrete segments, but they form a whole. The symbolism of the orange may have expanded, but its origins are clearly from a desire to liberate an entire segment of our community from their painful mitzrayim-narrow place.
Passover is a holiday of liberation, and in thanking God for our own national liberation, we must also take notice of those around us who are not free, but still in chains either seen or felt. There are so many Haggadot on the market today. Each has a different perspective, perhaps, but each tells the same story. There was a people enslaved by others, and they were freed with God’s outstretched arm. But God didn’t act alone. God needed human partners to make the liberation a reality. Who are we reaching out to today? Who needs that outstretched arm and open hand? And what new symbols or rituals can you bring into your Seder to deepen the meaning of this most fundamental gathering?
There are many beautiful colors in our community, and the orange reminds us to keep our hearts and hands open. And for this year, may you reach out to someone new, may you sit at a full table, may your songs and your wine be sweet, and may your Passover be filled with love and joy. Chag kasher v’sameach.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, http://www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.
An Orange on the Seder Plate
A modern-day custom in support of including marginalized Jews in mainstream Jewish life
By Tamara Cohen
In the early 1980s, while speaking at Oberlin College Hillel [the campus Jewish organization], Susannah Heschel, a well-known Jewish feminist scholar, was introduced to an early feminist Haggadah that suggested adding a crust of bread on the seder plate, as a sign of solidarity with Jewish lesbians (which was intended to convey the idea that there’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate).
Heschel felt that to put bread on the seder plate would be to accept that Jewish lesbians and gay men violate Judaism like hametz [leavened food] violates Passover.
So at her next seder, she chose an orange as a symbol of inclusion of gays and lesbians and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community. She offered the orange as a symbol of the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life.
In addition, each orange segment had a few seeds that had to be spit out–a gesture of spitting out, repudiating the homophobia of Judaism. While lecturing, Heschel often mentioned her custom as one of many feminist rituals that have been developed in the last 20 years. She writes, “Somehow, though, the typical patriarchal maneuver occurred: My idea of an orange and my intention of affirming lesbians and gay men were transformed. Now the story circulates that a man said to me that a woman belongs on the bimah [podium of a synagogue] as an orange on the seder plate. A woman’s words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is erased. Isn’t that precisely what’s happened over the centuries to women’s ideas?”
Tamara Cohen is a Jewish feminist writer and educator currently living with her partner in Gainesville, Florida. She is the spiritual leader of a community in Litchfield County, CT and is on the board of Brit Tzedek V’Shalom: The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace.